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The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs


Source: Classical Antiquity, Vol. 22, No. 2 (October 2003), pp. 275-312
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The Organization of Roman

Religious Beliefs

Abstract: This study will focus on the differences in the way that Roman Paganism and Chris-
tianity organize systems of beliefs. It rejects the theory that “beliefs” have no place in the
Roman religion, but stresses the differences between Christian orthodoxy, in which mandatory
dogmas define group identity, and the essentially polythetic nature of Roman religious orga-
nization, in which incompatible beliefs could exist simultaneously in the community without
conflict. In explaining how such beliefs could coexist in Rome, the study emphasizes three main
conceptual mechanisms: (1) polymorphism, the idea that gods could have multiple identities
with incompatible attributes, (2) orthopraxy, the focus upon standardized ritual rather than
standardized belief, and (3) pietas, the Roman ideal of reciprocal obligation, which was flexible
enough to allow Romans to maintain relationships simultaneously with multiple gods at varying
levels of personal commitment.

Indeed the centrality of “religious belief” in our culture has sometimes

led to the feeling that belief is a distinct and natural capacity which is
shared by all human beings. This of course is nonsense. “Belief” as a
religious term is profoundly Christian in its implications; it was forged
out of the experience which the Apostles and Saint Paul had of the Risen
Lord. The emphasis which “belief” gives to spiritual commitment has
no necessary place in the analysis of other cultures. That is, the question

As the ideas in this article have been gestating for many years, I would like to acknowledge my debt
to various scholars who read earlier forms of my arguments (which were sometimes rather different
from the current form). Even in cases where we disagreed, I found the exchanges valuable. Final
responsibility is of course my own. Thanks to Richard Saller, Rachel Fulton, Walter Kaegi, Alan
Bernstein, Ian Morris, Alice Christ, Tom Dousa, Rodney Stark, the editor and readers of this journal,
and (for proofreading) Fenita and Charles King and Christopher Gardner.

Classical Antiquity. Volume 22, Number 2, pages 275–312. ISSN 0278-6656(p); 1067-8344 (e).
Copyright © 2003 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
Send requests for permission to reprint to: Rights and Permissions.
University of California Press, 2000 Center Street, Ste 303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223.

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about the “real beliefs” of the Greeks is again implicitly Christianizing.

—Simon R. F. Price1

The above statement asserts that the concept of “belief” is intrinsically Chris-
tian and that merely raising the issue in relation to the Greeks (and, by implication,
Romans) is Christianizing. Elsewhere, Price has described the application of the
word “belief” to the Roman religion as “anachronistic.”2 This challenge to the
use of the term belief is not original to Price and derives from the arguments of
the anthropologist Rodney Needham.3 Through Price’s work, though, the idea
has become widely employed by scholars of the Roman religion and it has even
been endorsed by at least one general textbook about the Empire.4 A reassess-
ment seems overdue. The issue is not simply a debate about terminology, but
rather a question of the underlying assumptions on which Christianity and Roman
Paganism rest and whether those assumptions share common ground.
Needham and Price are correct that modern Western scholars are quite fre-
quently the products of a Judeo-Christian religious upbringing and that a dispro-
portionate familiarity with Christian ideas has a potential to produce excessively
Christianized interpretations of other religious traditions. One also needs to ac-
knowledge an opposing problem, however, for the assumption that Christianity
represents a radical break with other (or earlier) religious concepts could itself be
the product of a Christianizing bias in favor of Christian uniqueness. One cannot
simply assume a priori that the presence of ideas within Christianity constitutes
evidence of the absence of those ideas in another tradition.
The discussion of the applicability of the word “belief” to the Roman religion
will serve therefore as an entry point to a broader discussion of the conceptual
framework of the Roman religion and the degree to which that framework does or
does not share common ground with Christian ideas. It will be argued here that
the arguments that have been employed against the use of the word “belief” are

1. Price 1984: 10–11. The occasional use of the word “belief” in a later multi-author work
(Beard, North, and Price 1998) may suggest that Price is softening his views somewhat, though even
that work speaks of “deep feelings and beliefs about man’s relation to universal forces—that seem to
be missing from the religious life of the Romans” (p. 49).
2. Price 1980: 29.
3. Needham 1972.
4. The textbook is Wells 1992: 244, citing Price’s work on 306. Others: Phillips 1986: 2697–
2711, 2772; Dowden 1992: 8. Tatum 1993: 13 speaks of a time “before Price brought the word
to classicists languishing in the darkness.” That line does not seem intended as irony, for he also calls
Price’s arguments “undeniably clear.” Feeney 1998: 12–46 offers a more flexible model of Roman
“genres of belief,” but his failure to define “belief” makes it unclear what he means when he says that
it is inappropriate to discuss the Ludi Saeculares in terms of “personal belief” (28–38). Feeney notes
that Augustus was refocusing the Ludi on different gods than in earlier occurrences of the festival,
and that both the official Acta of the games and Horace’s poem about them contain a wide range of
Augustan political symbolism and allusions to Greek literature, but under what definition of “belief”
would any of these factors be incompatible with a belief that the gods to whom the offerings were
being given would act to help the Roman people if they were pleased with the offering?

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 277

not self-consistent, and the calls to banish the term from Roman studies seem
premature, for the term “belief” is appropriate and useful for describing some
aspects of the Roman religious experience, particularly in regard to Roman prayer.
One should stress, though, that the question of the presence or absence of beliefs
should not be confused with the question of how beliefs can be organized. It is
within their mutually incompatible frameworks for the organization of beliefs that
fundamental distinctions between the nature of Roman Paganism and Christianity
can be seen. The Roman Pagans did not merely lack the Christian focus on
orthodox sets of beliefs, but possessed specific alternative mechanisms for the
organization of beliefs that allowed clusters of variant beliefs to exist within
Roman society without conflict.


It is necessary to begin with the word “belief” itself. Is it appropriate to write

about “belief” in a scholarly discussion of religion? Rodney Needham rejected the
term, applying two main arguments. First, he argued that the term was intrinsically
Western and Christian and that, for example, it could not be translated into the
language of the Nuer people of the Sudan. Second, he argued that the word
“belief” has a wide range of definitions in Western thought and that the lack of
a consistent meaning makes the term useless for analysis. For Needham, “belief”
does not really mean anything in particular.5
Needham’s two arguments contradict each other, for they depend upon op-
posing premises. If “belief” is specifically Western or Christian, or if (in Price’s
words above) it derives from the “experience which the Apostles and Saint Paul
had of the Risen Lord,” then it must have a specific meaning or at least an identi-
fiable range of meanings. Otherwise, how would one know whether or not the
concept is Christian? If a word has no specific definition, then how could one
know whether or not it could be rendered into the Nuer language? The same
contradiction arises in Phillips’ application of Needham’s theories to Rome. He
asserts that scholars assessing the Roman religion in terms of “beliefs” will con-
clude that Romans practiced “empty cult acts,” while also insisting that “belief”
is undefinable. Surely, though, the (alleged) consistency of application would
require a consistent usage of the word “belief.”6
Needham’s two arguments against “belief” also do not work well individually.
Donald Davidson’s work on semantics has shown that translating concepts is far
more complex than equating individual words in a direct word-to-word translation.
To show that a word from culture A represents a concept that does not exist in
culture B, one would have to show that the concept could not be paraphrased

5. Needham 1972: 14–39 and 64–135.

6. Phillips 1986: 2697–2711. For the theory of “empty cult acts,” see the works he cites on

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into the language of culture B using concepts that already existed in culture B. If
one used the language of culture B to describe an allegedly untranslatable idea
in order to ask whether the concept existed in culture B, such a description would
itself be a form of translation. It would thus be extremely difficult to prove that
a concept does not or could not exist in any given culture, even if it was a culture
of the modern era, much less of the distant past.7 Moreover, even if one could
show that “belief” did not exist in the modern Nuer culture, that would prove
nothing about the Romans. The Romans are not the Nuer, and the absence of
belief would have to be demonstrated separately for each culture. To make the
argument about Rome, one would still have to formulate a definition of “belief”
and test it against Roman Pagan evidence. Neither Needham nor Price presents
a definition clear enough for such a purpose.8
It is also strange to argue that the word “belief” should be abandoned because
different scholars have applied the word differently in different contexts. No
alternative term of analysis exists that does not also have a range of usages.
Price makes heavy use of the term “ritual,” but Jack Goody once argued that the
word “ritual” should be abandoned because it has too many possible meanings,
an argument quite similar to Needham’s.9 Both Needham and Dan Sperber
recognized that other terms of analysis would also be subject to a range of
interpretations, but both insisted that “symbolism” was exempt.10 It is difficult
to understand the logic of this argument. How can “symbolism” alone be a
consistent tool for analysis if scholars do not agree about what “symbolism” is
or how to interpret it? Certainly, there are many views on the subject.11 If a lack of
unanimity in definition disqualifies the word “belief” from scholarly use, then the
same problem also disqualifies every substitute term that has yet been proposed.
Rather than continue debating a priori assumptions about belief, it seems
more useful to propose a general definition of belief that would be consistent
with modern usage, and then show its applicability to the interpretation of Roman

Definition: Belief is a conviction that an individual (or group of individuals) holds

independently of the need for empirical support. For example, a Roman mother

7. Davidson 1984: 183–98.

8. Needham rejects the possibility of a definition. Price 1984: 10 defines “belief” as “religio
animi.” The Latin seems intended to evoke Catholicism, but the only definition of religio animi
that Price offers is that it is the “interiorized beliefs and feelings of individuals.” Defining “belief” as
“interiorized beliefs” seems inadequate.
9. Goody 1977. Another fine example of multiple meanings in terminology is Bynum 1995,
describing the vast range of meanings of the word “body” in modern scholarship.
10. Needham 1975: 10; Sperber 1975: 50.
11. Much of Sperber 1975 is devoted to attacking other theories about definitions of symbolism.
For a range of other views: Toren 1983; Foster and Brandes 1980; Freud 1966 [1917]; Turner 1967;
Lévi-Strauss 1975; Spiro 1979; Skorupski 1976; Boyer 1993; Todorov 1982; Penner 1995; and
Morris 1992: 17–21.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 279

from the Republic used a tombstone to express this belief about the death of her
daughter: “I believe (credo) that some deity or another was jealous of her.”12 The
mother does not attempt to name the god to whom she refers, but her statement
asserts beliefs that gods (plural) exist and that one of those gods had both the
power and the requisite jealousy to kill her daughter. No part of this scenario
about the gods lends itself to verification, but the mother nonetheless presents
her conviction that the scenario is true.

One should stress that the lack of a need for empirical evidence is not the
same thing as a lack of empirical evidence. Believers might have some evidence
to support their convictions, but the same position could be reached by another
person in the absence of evidence. Modern science has provided many tools for
predicting the weather, but still one does not need a weather satellite to believe
it will rain. A belief can be formulated in such a way as to allow it to be tested, but
the existence of a mechanism for testing a belief is not an essential part of that
belief. If one believes that it will rain “on Tuesday,” then the passage of time
will prove or disprove the belief. If one believes that world peace will be achieved
“someday,” then proving or disproving the belief would be difficult or impossible.
Far from being “implicitly Christianizing,” belief is not even intrinsically
connected with religion or religious concepts. A modern American might believe
in any number of secular positions, just as a Roman like Ammianus Marcellinus
(23.6.67) could believe that the Chinese (about whom he knew close to nothing)
were a completely peaceful people who never fought wars. Still, specifically
religious beliefs tend to be unusually devoid of a mechanism for testing their
validity, for any supporting evidence that could be cited would itself be filtered
through additional beliefs.13 Propertius (4.7.1–12) presents an appearance by his
dead girlfriend in a dream as evidence of life after death. Accepting Propertius’
evidence would itself be an act of belief because there is no way to verify either
the contents of someone else’s dream or the ability of a dead person to appear
in a dream.
Some scholars have also attempted to link “belief” to the idea of “will,”14
but there is no reason that an element of dynamic assertion would need to be
essential. A belief could be no more than an assumption that a person had

12. My trans. from text of Warmington 1940: 22: quam nei esset credo nesci[o qui] inveidit
deus. Needham 1972: 40–50 presents an exclusively Judeo-Christian account of the development
of the terminology of “belief,” without discussing the Pagans. That it was not the Christians that gave
the verb credo its meaning of “believe” is therefore itself a point worth making. There is no noun
constructed on the same root, but the word opinio often has the sense of “belief” as I am defining it
here. Cf., for example, Cicero Div. 2.70. Even in English, it is difficult to explain the difference
between the cognate “opinion” and “belief.”
13. I do not mean that it is impossible to construct religious beliefs that are capable of being
tested, merely that it is relatively uncommon. See discussion of Wiebe 1977.
14. This idea is central to Pojman 1986, which is almost entirely about Christianity. Cf. Needham
1972: 81–86.

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absorbed unconsciously and never questioned. The central element is not the
conscious assertion of belief, but rather the existence of a conviction in the
absence of a need for verification.
It may further clarify the concept of “belief” to contrast the definition that
I have given above with Dan Sperber’s theory of “symbolic knowledge,” which
Price invoked as part of his argument against belief. Sperber held that the human
mind divided knowledge between “encyclopedic knowledge”—the knowledge of
material things—and “symbolic knowledge”—knowledge based upon the con-
ceptual associations of symbolism. According to Sperber, any statement by a
religious participant concerning gods or their powers should be classified as sym-
bolic knowledge. Thus, the statement would not reflect a true conviction that
supernatural powers exist or could affect the world, but instead should be seen
merely as a pattern of symbolic description about the participant’s society:
Cults devoted to the gods of a pantheon seem at first glance to be homage
rendered to supernatural beings of which nothing in experience rationally
attests the existence. But a symbolic interpretation would show, for
example (à la Dumézil) that these gods function as signals which in
their reciprocal relations have for meaning a set of categories by means
of which men represent to themselves their own society.15

Few if any scholars would deny that religious ceremonies and prayers can possess
and express symbolically a wide range of political or socio-cultural associations.
What is unsatisfactory about Sperber’s position, and that of other “symbolist”
scholars such as John Beattie, is that they do not just suggest additional meanings
beyond the literal. Rather, they assert the primacy of the symbolic reading over the
literal in all cases, eliminating a priori the possibility that worshippers actually
mean that supernatural forces can affect their world.16 Such a position is itself
dependent on religious belief, as the following argument from Sperber illustrates.
Sperber is describing a ritual performed by the Dorze people of Ethiopia:
The sacrificer talks to his ancestors. He takes a sheep, strokes its back
three times, throws it to the ground on its right side, slits its throat, wets
his hand in its blood and sprinkles it before him so that the ancestors will
consume it. No ancestor is present, neither to hear the sacrificer, nor to
observe the correctness of his gestures, nor to drink the blood.17

The Dorze are presenting Sperber with a complex series of interlocking beliefs.
Invisible dead persons are present at the ceremony, wish the ceremony to be
performed in a particular way, and are consuming the sacrificial blood in some
way that is not visible to the eye or measurable. Although Sperber concedes that

15. Sperber 1975: 5. Cf. Price 1984: 7–11.

16. Cf. Beattie 1966 and the rebuttals by Penner 1986: 646–49; King 1998: 31–40; and Stark
1999: 273–74.
17. Sperber 1975: 111.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 281

the Dorze assert the presence of the ancestors “literally,” Sperber’s interpretation
of the ceremony requires that the Dorze—at some higher level of mentality—
understand that their own statements are only symbolic knowledge, not a descrip-
tion of the physical world. “No ancestor is present,” says Sperber, presenting the
statement as an objective reality that the Dorze must, at some level, acknowledge.
It is important to stress that Sperber’s position is also a belief. He can no
more prove that the dead ancestors are absent than the Dorze can prove they are
there. One certainly does not have to share a people’s beliefs to analyze them,
but it serves little purpose to construct an argument that assumes a priori that all
worshippers agree subconsciously with a scholar’s own belief that supernatural
forces cannot exist. To take such a position as a given merely begs the question of
how the religious participant views his or her role.
“Belief” is superior to Sperber’s “symbolic knowledge” as a category of
analysis in that “belief” does not require the analyst to disassociate statements
about divine power from assertions of practical applications in the material
universe. “There will be a lot of snow this winter” and “Jupiter will send a lot
of snow this winter” are both beliefs. The second statement is religious because
it asserts divine agency for natural forces, but it remains an assertion about the
physical operation of the world.
Beliefs in the existence of gods and in the practical applications of their power
are not merely present in the Roman religion, but essential to Roman prayer, for
prayer is predicated on the belief that gods can and will respond to requests with
actions in the material world. Consider one of several prayers that Cato recorded
(Agr. 141.2–3):
Father Mars, I beg and entreat you to be well disposed toward me and
toward our house and household. I have ordered an offering of pigs, sheep,
and bulls to be led around my field, land, and farm on account of this
request, so that you may prevent, ward off, and remove sickness, both seen
and unseen, and barrenness and devastation, and damage to crops and bad
weather, and so that you may permit my legumes, grain, vineyards, and
shrubbery to grow and turn out well. Preserve my shepherds and flocks
unharmed and give good health and strength to me, my home, and our
household. For this purpose, to purify my farm and land and field and
to make an expiatory offering, as I said, be increased by these offerings of
suckling pigs, sheep, and bulls that are to be offered. Father Mars, for this
same reason, be increased by these offerings of suckling pigs, sheep, and

18. My trans. from text of Mazzarino 1962: Mars pater, te precor quaesoque ut sies volens
propitius mihi domo familiaeque nostrae, quoius re ergo agrum terram fundumque meum suovi-
taurilia circumagi iussi, uti tu morbos visos invisosque, viduertatem vastitudinemque, calamitates
intemperiasque prohibessis defendas averruncesque; utique tu fruges, frumenta, vineta virgultaque
grandire beneque evenire siris, pastores pecuaque salva servassis duisque bonam salutem vale-
tudinemque mihi domo familaeque nostrae; harumce rerum ergo, fundi terrae agrique mei lustrandi

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There are doubtless a number of levels at which this ceremony functions

symbolically. For example, its performance likely reinforces the worshipper’s
role as paterfamilias and owner of the farm on which it takes place. Still a purely
symbolic interpretation is not sufficient to explain the specific form of the prayer.
Why would such a symbolic representation take the form of a religious ritual and
not something else? Why is the ritual directed toward the god Mars? Why does
Cato ask for protection from sickness and bad weather if he is not attempting to
gain protection from sickness and bad weather? There were certainly many other
non-religious ways the Romans could have reinforced patriarchy, land ownership,
or other related concepts. Whatever symbolic baggage it may carry with it, the
prayer still conveys that the worshipper is asking Mars to help his farm because
the worshipper believes that there is a being known as Mars whose power can
affect the material world.
The prayer reveals an interlocking set of beliefs, not merely that the deity Mars
exists, but also that he is paying attention to the actions of the person praying, that
he can grant requests, that it is possible for the one praying to persuade the god to
grant a request, and that Mars wants a sacrifice of a particular type. These beliefs
are interdependent. One must first internalize the belief that a god exists before
one can believe that the god has any specific power. One must first internalize
the belief that gods answer prayer before one could believe that any particular
prayer or offering would catch the attention of any particular deity.
Any prayer whose stated goal requires divine power to initiate some action
would, as prerequisites, require underlying beliefs in the existence, powers, and
responsiveness of the deity, whether the prayer was Pagan or Christian or from
some other religion entirely. Thus, there is common ground between Christianity
and Roman Paganism at the general level of belief. To define the differences
between the two religions, it is necessary to examine other factors.


No religion has ever achieved fully uniform beliefs among each of its partici-
pating members, and perhaps absolute uniformity is a practical impossibility. Still,
it is not unusual within Christianity for the leaders of any given denomination to
assert the theoretical possibility of theological uniformity by promulgating sets of
creeds and teachings that every member is supposed to endorse and which mem-
bers must accept as a prerequisite for participation in their religious organization.
Roman Paganism lacked a similar concept of membership and a similar emphasis
on the need for participants to share a particular set of beliefs, allowing instead
the coexistence of multiple overlapping sets of variant beliefs. It is in the differing

lustrique faciendi ergo, sicuti dixi, macte hisce suovitaurilibus lactentibus inmolandis esto; Mars
pater, eiusdem rei ergo macte hisce suovitaurilibus lactentibus esto.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 283

manner in which the two religions organized sets of beliefs that the fundamental
difference between the two religions is to be found.
Christianity is one of a group of religions (also including Judaism and Islam)
that define themselves through dogmas and orthodoxy. A dogma is a belief asserted
by a particular sect or religious organization as a defining element of membership
in that organization. Dogmas are tied to ideas of group identity, and they are not
optional. “Jesus is the son of God” is a Christian dogma because it is a belief
essential to membership in the category “Christian.” Orthodoxy is the overall
system of assigning a positive value to the dogmas of one’s own group and a
negative value to the beliefs (whether or not they are dogmas) of any other group.
For the Christian, it is right to worship Jesus, but wrong to worship Apollo.
Orthodoxy erects barriers between sets of beliefs by stressing the correctness of a
particular set of dogmas.
Orthodoxy provides an example of a monothetic structure for organizing a set
of beliefs. In its most literal sense, the term “monothetic set” would be one in
which all the members have a single defining characteristic (as the color “red”
defines the set “red objects”). By extension, the term “monothetic” can be used
to classify any set that can be defined by any specific group of features held in
common by every member of the set, in opposition to the makeup of other sets.19
Orthodoxy is an attempt to produce such a set of beliefs by defining membership
in a religious organization through an emphasis on the exclusive correctness of
a particular set of beliefs vis-à-vis any other set of beliefs and by stressing the
need for each member of the organization to endorse the entire set of those beliefs.
One should emphasize that the monothetic character of religions like Chris-
tianity and Islam will always be greater in theory than practice. No religion has
ever had the practical ability to regulate every single belief held by every member,
so some degree of variation will always be present.20 Moreover, the same religion
may vary in the degree to which it attempts to assert orthodoxy at different times
and places, and conflicting sects may choose not to emphasize their differences
as a matter of policy when threatened by some perceived common threat (e.g.,
modern secularism).
Nevertheless, even if the practical reality falls short of the theory, orthodox re-
ligions are monothetic in intent. Each sect of Christianity asserts that its particular
set of doctrines represents the truest path to human salvation in opposition to other
views. The leadership of each sect maintains that it has the right to define what
those true doctrines are, based on its interpretation of religious scripture. That
leadership also can define the exact nature of those doctrines that are a condition
for membership in the sect at whatever level of detail or comprehensiveness the
leaders might choose to assert. If, as is often true in modern America, the sect
concedes that its rivals’ beliefs have some degree of validity, that validity is still

19. The term “monothetic” is borrowed from biological taxonomy. See Needham 1975.
20. See Poole 1986: 413–23.

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imperfect, and the sect’s theologians will be happy to explain the superiority of
their own doctrines. This assertion of superiority is also the justification for their
sect’s existence as a separate organization.21 As the monothetic approach requires
each member to endorse the doctrines of the sect, a genuine difference in beliefs
could be a crisis, requiring the church hierarchy to suppress dissent, modify its
views, or face schism.22
Orthodoxy is not an intrinsic part of religion. It is a product of particular
historical contexts that promote claims of exclusive religious truth. Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam had specific reasons for emphasizing the exclusivity of
their beliefs. The earliest Jews were trying to set themselves off as a separate
culture from the polytheistic religions of the Near East. Christianity would attempt
to set itself off from Judaism, claiming to be an improvement upon traditional
Jewish theology, and Islam would later make similar claims against both Judaism
and Christianity. Moreover, sects within each of these religions competed against
each other and, in the process, defined themselves in opposition to the beliefs
of their rivals. Each sect’s claim of holding a monopoly on religious truth was
essential to the process of that sect’s development and to its own self-definition at
any point in that development.23
The Romans and Greeks lacked similar patterns of development and did not
define themselves with a similar type of orthodoxy. Within Rome itself, Roman
priests did not attempt to systematize their beliefs as a form of self-definition.
There was no organization for Roman Pagans to join and no core dogmas that
served as litmus tests for membership. The Greek philosophical schools might
have been a partial exception, putting forth programs of doctrines in opposition
to each other, but the exclusivity of those doctrines was not binding on Roman
intellectuals like Cicero, who could pick and choose ideas from the different
schools as suited his individual purposes.24 Ancient philosophy had no doctrinal
authority equivalent to that demanded by Christian theology, nor did any other

21. For a convenient example (out of many that could be cited) see Clendenin 1997, in which an
Evangelical Christian explains the doctrinal errors of the Russian Orthodox Church. More generally,
one could look at the regular pattern of Christian denominations defining their differences according
to issues such as apostolic succession, purgatory, transubstantiation, the filioque clause, the role of
baptism, the role of “works,” the veneration of saints, etc.
22. For a general discussion of these patterns, and the problem of schism, see Stark and
Bainbridge 1987: 121–53, though I do not agree with the authors’ position that they are describing
the conduct of all religions. The supporting examples are overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian, and they
are therefore analyzing a specifically dogmatic/orthodox pattern of religious organization. What
would “schism” mean to Scipio?
23. Frend 1984 illustrates the frequent doctrinal conflicts in the early church, and a broader
history of the church, like that of Schaff 1910, shows the long-term repetition of patterns of
theological self-definition at the expense of “heretic” minority sects. Historically, Islam may be
less focused on heresy than Christianity, but some similar patterns can be found in Hodgson 1974.
For a recent discussion of the conflict of sects within Roman-era Judaism, see Meier 2001.
24. For Roman use of philosophy in general, see Rawson 1985. On Cicero, see, for example,
Glucker 1988 and the studies collected in Fortenbaugh and Steinmetz 1989.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 285

religious mechanism. The result was a system that allowed a level of diversity
in beliefs that a dogmatic system like Christianity would find unthinkable.
When the Romans encountered foreign peoples, they likewise did not erect
firm barriers between their gods and beliefs and those they encountered elsewhere.
If anything, Roman religious history is the history of assimilating and adapting
the religious concepts of their neighbors. Romans frequently worshipped local
gods when they entered foreign areas, identified Roman gods with the gods of
other peoples, and imported the worship of certain outside cults to Rome.25
Thus, the term “Roman religion” does not refer to a single organization or
to a set of beliefs with fixed boundaries, but it is rather just a term of modern
convenience to refer to the aggregate of beliefs and practices that existed among
the Roman people at any particular moment. Likewise, the term “Pagan,” which
I employ throughout this paper to refer to participants in the Roman religion,
does not imply membership in an organization, nor does it require all Pagans to
have similar beliefs. Without the restrictions of orthodoxy, variant and even
contradictory beliefs could exist side by side in overlapping sets of beliefs
scattered throughout the many worshippers of the Roman community. Such a
structure requires a different model. It is not monothetic, but rather polythetic.
A polythetic set is one that is defined by overlapping points of resemblance,
so that there is no finite set of characteristics shared by all members of the set, and
no individual member of the set has to share any one specific characteristic with
any other members of the set. The idea derives ultimately from the taxonomic
theories of the eighteenth-century botanist Michel Adanson, but was shaped
into its modern form by two rather disparate thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein,
the analytic philosopher, and Morton Beckner, a biologist studying taxonomy.26
Beckner’s model is the standard formulation:
A class is ordinarily defined by reference to a set of properties which
are both necessary and sufficient (by stipulation) for membership in the
class. It is possible, however, to define a group K in terms of a set G
of properties f1 , f2 , . . . , fn in a different manner. Suppose we have an
aggregation of individuals (we shall not as yet call them a class) such
1) Each one possesses a large (but unspecified) number of the properties
in G

25. See the studies collected by Henig and King 1986; and cf. North 1976; Feeney 1998: 25–28;
Dumézil 1970: 2.407–45; Palmer 1974: 153–71; Basanoff 1947; and Wissowa 1912: 85–86. I do not
mean that Romans never defined outside religions as undesirably foreign, merely that there was no
consistency in doing so, and no attempt to assert a specific set of Roman beliefs in opposition to
those of others. Augustus complimented Germanicus for not sacrificing to the Jewish God while
in Jerusalem (Suet. Aug. 93). If the passage shows the emperor’s disapproval of the Jews, the
nature of the compliment suggests that other Romans were happy to sacrifice to Jerusalem’s most
prominent local deity and that there was no Roman prohibition against doing so. The same passage
also mentions that Augustus himself was inducted into the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries.
26. Needham 1975: 349–57 gives a short history of the concept.

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2) Each f in G is possessed by large numbers of these individuals; and

3) No f in G is possessed by every individual in the aggregate
By the terms of 3), no f is necessary for membership in this aggregate. . . .
If n is very large, it would be possible to arrange the members of K along
a line in such a way that each individual resembles his nearest neighbors
very closely and his further neighbors less closely. The members near
the extremes would resemble each other hardly at all, e.g., they might
have none of the f’s in G in common.27

The polythetic set provides a useful model for the distribution (and disunity) of
beliefs within the Roman religion. If one thinks of the total number of religious
beliefs that existed in Roman culture at any time as a set, then no one Roman
possessed the entire set, and no finite and specific group of beliefs defined the
nature of the set in opposition to other sets (the religions of other peoples).
Roman A could possess beliefs 1, 2, and 3; Roman B, beliefs 2, 3, and 4; Roman
C, beliefs 4, 5, and 6; and Roman D, beliefs 5, 6, and 7. None of the four has the
same exact beliefs, and Romans A and D could have extremely dissimilar beliefs.
Nevertheless, they are all part of the same set (religion) because of the overlap of
subsets of belief. Romans A and D are linked in the same system through the
beliefs they share with B and C.
Thus, highly dissimilar beliefs could coexist in the Roman community, even
in regard to the same category of deities. Ovid (Fasti 2.597–616) could present
the lares as the children of a nymph named Lara, but Festus (108L) describes
them as a manifestation of the deified dead, a view also asserted earlier by
Varro (cited by Arnobius Adv. Nat. 3.41). The view that the lares were deified
Romans seems logically incompatible with viewing them as the children of a
single supernatural mother, and neither of these views seems fully compatible
with another variation—the equation of the lares with the Greek Dioscuri, which
can be found in some Roman art. Moreover, the Imperial era also brought the
worship of the lares Augusti, which added another layer of associations to the
concept of lares, including ambiguity about whether the imperial lares were the
same gods as the lares of the household.28 Thus, a range of beliefs could exist.
Participation in the worship of the lares did not require acceptance of a particular
fixed set of beliefs about lares, and the overall set of Roman beliefs about lares

27. Beckner 1959: 22–23. For other similar models, cf. Wittgenstein 1960: 77–185; Sokal and
Sneath 1963: 11–20; Needham 1975; Rosch and Mervis 1975; and, specifically applied to religion,
Poole 1986. One should note also that there is a great deal of contradictory jargon in the literature.
Beckner uses “polytypic” rather than “polythetic,” a term coined later by P. H. A. Sneath 1962. Rosch
and Mervis follow Wittgenstein in using the term “family resemblance.” Poole 1986: 428 lists several
other equivalent terms that have been used by scholars.
28. Waites 1920: 251–55 discusses the Dioscuri equation. For a broader discussion of the
overlap of the characteristics in the sets lares, larvae, manes, and maniae, see King 1998: 470–92.
On artistic representations that interweave the imperial and domestic lares and genius, see Breen
1997: 139–231.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 287

would not have been held by any one individual. Rather, individual Romans held
diverse sets of beliefs, which might overlap with each other, but which did not
have to coincide with any orthodox paradigm of correctness. One Roman could
share some beliefs about lares with one neighbor and share other beliefs about
lares with another neighbor, although the views of those two neighbors might be
quite dissimilar to each other. All three Romans might also agree (or disagree)
in their views of another god (or gods).
Beliefs from different periods could also coexist. That new ideas would have
appeared periodically was likely inevitable, but one implication of the lack of
an orthodox framework that defined correct beliefs at any given moment is that
the introduction of a new belief in one segment of the community would not
necessarily have removed older beliefs from other parts of the community. The
innovation could instead simply increase the overall diversity of the Romans’ sets
of beliefs. Over time, it is possible that certain beliefs did fade away completely,
and that possibility may warrant more investigation than this study can give it.
Still, when confronted with two variant beliefs separated by a few decades or even
centuries, scholars should be cautious not to declare it to be an “evolution” when
it may merely be further “accumulation.” The evidence is seldom sufficient to
say that an older belief actually disappeared from the Roman community, even
when one finds evidence of a new one among individual Romans. In the absence
of an orthodox framework, new beliefs could be adopted or rejected as a part of
any given Roman’s personal set of beliefs, in whatever manner that Roman saw fit
to choose them.
The possibilities for variation among the overlapping sets of beliefs can be
multiplied by hundreds of gods and hundreds of thousands of Romans in the
capital city alone. The Roman religion was the aggregate of huge numbers of
overlapping subsets of belief, and it was that aggregate as a whole that made it
distinctive as a set. Wittgenstein used the metaphor of a rope. Ropes are made
up of fibers, but the presence of any individual fiber would not be essential to
the making of rope. Only the overlapping of large numbers of individual fibers
could have the quality of being rope.29
One weakness of using the polythetic set as a model of Roman religious
organization is that the model, at least in the pure formulation of Beckner (quoted
above), assumes that every element in any given set has equal weight and equal
probability of occurring in the set. Reality seldom presents such straightforward
models, not even in the biological contexts that Beckner studied. All birds may
not fly, and everything that flies is not a bird, but the ability to fly is still a more
frequently occurring characteristic of membership in the set “bird” than having
webbed feet. Likewise, in the preceding example, Ovid and Festus might disagree
about whether the lares were the deified dead, but there was other common ground.
Both positions were formulated in ways that assumed underlying beliefs that lares

29. Wittgenstein 1960: 87.

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existed, had power, and desired acts of worship. Logically, the more general belief
that the gods existed must have been more widespread than the multitude of variant
beliefs about the specific nature of that existence, for all of those variants required
the core belief that lares existed as a prerequisite.
Moreover, even in the absence of an enforced orthodoxy, one would still
expect some religious beliefs to be more widespread than others. People living
together in a community are going to be constantly observing each other and
exchanging ideas. Over time, it is likely that such communication would produce
a higher degree of consensus about some beliefs than others. The regular perfor-
mance of rituals to the gods would also reinforce beliefs that were specific to that
ritual (i.e., god X can solve problem Y in return for offering Z), but beliefs that
were not central to the underlying premise of any ritual might receive less (or less
consistent) reinforcement. Even in the Roman religion, some beliefs would be
more common than others.
The original polythetic model of the Roman religion needs to be refined so
as to accommodate clusters of beliefs of varying intensity and distribution. One
can achieve this by combining the model of the polythetic set with the so-called
“fuzzy” or “graded” set, which is a model drawn from mathematical logic and
experimental psychology. The “graded” set is still a set that does not depend upon
monothetic or finite criteria, and so it is still polythetic, but it acknowledges that
some criteria will be more common than others and thus some factors will be
“graded” more heavily in establishing the nature of the set.30 Eleanor Rosch used
the term “cue validity” to refer to the probability that a given criterion (cue) of
a set would appear frequently. Something that has high cue validity would be
more likely to be present in any example of a given set than something with low
cue validity.31
Conceiving of religions in terms of graded sets allows a further insight into the
difference between the organization of beliefs in Christianity and that in Roman
Paganism. The orthodoxy of Christianity depends on imposing sharp dichotomies
between the cue validity of beliefs. Christian teaching imposes maximum cue
validity on mandatory dogmas. “Jesus is Lord” can only have the highest cue
validity if one is a Christian. The maximum cue validity of Christian dogmas is

30. Rosch 1978; Zadeh 1965; Lakoff 1973; Kempton 1978; Ortony 1979. Poole 1986 pioneered
the idea of combining it with the polythetic set in the study of religion. I should stress that the
data are insufficient to reduce the distribution of beliefs in the Roman religion to the type of formal
mathematical equation that Zadeh puts forth, but the general idea of a set graded by degree of
importance remains a useful conceptual tool.
31. Rosch 1978: 30–31: “Cue validity is a probabilistic concept: the validity of a given cue
x as a predictor of a given category y (the conditional probability of y/x) increases as the frequency
with which cue x is associated with category y increases and decreases as the frequency with which
cue x is associated with categories other than y increases. . . . The cue validity of an entire category
may be defined as the summation of the cue validities for that category of each of the attributes
of the category. A category with high cue validity is, by definition, more differentiated from other
categories than one of lower cue validity.”

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 289

balanced by the imposition of minimum cue validity for any belief contrary to
the dogmas. “Mars is Lord” has a cue validity so low it is completely excluded
from the set “Christian.”
Paganism avoids extreme contrasts of cue validity. The worshippers have
overlapping polythetic sets of beliefs. Those beliefs may not agree with each other,
but nevertheless they may have equal validity within the Roman community. It
is possible for some Pagan beliefs to have a higher cue validity than others in
the sense that those beliefs would be held by more members of the community,
but such an increase in cue validity does not require a corresponding effort to
reduce the cue validity of other beliefs. If, for example, more Romans happened
to think that the lares were the children of a nymph than thought they were the
deified dead, there was no mechanism for asserting the correctness of one view
over the other. Variant or even contradictory beliefs could simply coexist in the
broader “set” of the community.
How would it be possible to study such a system? One could study Christianity
in terms of official doctrines (at least of a particular sect at a particular moment in
time). The lack of orthodoxy makes such an approach unfeasible when studying
the Pagans, but one of the values of the “graded set” model is that it does suggest
a different strategy for making generalizations about certain aspects of Roman
religious thought by examining differences in the cue validity of beliefs. As noted,
one observable phenomenon in surviving sources is that there are variations of
belief that all depend upon a belief or beliefs held in common as a prerequisite for
each of the specific variations. Logically, a single underlying belief upon which
multiple variations are constructed would be a more widespread belief than any of
the individual variations based upon it, and it would have a higher cue validity in
the overall “set” of the Roman religion. One could therefore approach the Roman
religion through the study of clusters of beliefs, examining sets of variations for
beliefs held in common by all the variants.
An example of a belief cluster can be seen in the Roman worship of the di
manes, the deified dead. Several Roman texts attribute to the manes the power
to postpone the death of their worshippers.32 One inscription (CIL 6.30099 = CE
1508) portrays a husband addressing his dead wife, whose name is now lost. The
husband vows to give offerings to the wife for as long as she will sustain his life:
“Spare, I ask, spare your husband, girl, so that for many years, with wreathes,
he can give the due offerings that he promised.”33
Similarly (but not identically), Statius (Silv. 5.1) described the death of
Priscilla, the wife of Abascantus, the secretary ab epistulis to the emperor

32. For the powers of the manes and Roman prayers to them, see King 1998: especially 246–58,
336–80; on terminology used to describe the deified dead, see 116–24, 226–33; on who worshipped
which dead, see 259–325.
33. parcas, oro, viro, puella parcas,
ut possit tibi plurimos per annos
cum sertis dare iusta quae dicavit.

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Domitian. Abascantus erected (5.1.228–37) statues of his wife in the form of

a goddess, implying an intent to worship, as would have been customary anyway
at the annual festival of the Parentalia.34 Priscilla too will keep her husband alive.
Although he is a young man (iuvenis, 5.1.247) at the funeral, Priscilla will see that
her husband lives to be an old man (senex, 5.1.262). She will accomplish this by
praying to other gods of the dead from her vantage point in the underworld: “There
(Elysium) with a suppliant right hand she prays to the Fates for you (Abascantus),
and for you she placates the rulers of sad Avernus. . . .”35
Statius’ poem and the epitaph about the dead wife both depend on certain
beliefs that they hold in common, that a dead and deified wife could continue to
interact with her surviving husband and, specifically, that she could extend the life
span of the living husband. On this foundation, however, one can see variations
in how the authors conceived of the nature and role of the dead wife. Statius’
Priscilla has a primarily intercessory role, like the saints of later Christianity. She
helps her husband by persuading other powers to sustain him. Statius presents
her motive as wifely devotion. She prays for her husband after death, just as
she prayed for him while she was alive (5.1.72–75). By contrast, the wife of the
epitaph seems to have the power of life and death in her own right. There is no
mention of other powers or intercessory mediation. She herself will “spare” her
husband, and the author presents her motive for doing so in terms of the offerings
she will receive, not marital loyalty. Whereas Statius had stressed the continuity
between the dead wife and her living personality, the epitaph’s author stressed
the transformation of the wife into something more like the gods of the temples,
primarily interested in ritual offerings.
The two authors agree that people can continue to exist after death in a way
that allows them to affect the lives of living worshippers and that the dead can
specifically extend the human lifespan. These beliefs can also be found in several
other Roman texts and contexts.36 The two examples above also agree on an
additional belief, that the life-sustaining power of the dead was held by dead
wives and not simply by dead ancestors from earlier generations. The agreement
between multiple texts suggests that these beliefs had a high cue validity within
the overall set of beliefs in the community. These points of agreement could allow
for a degree of generalization about Roman views of the afterlife, and the powers
attributed to the deified dead, but one would also need to acknowledge that each
belief that is held in common could itself be manifested in a cluster of specific
variations of lower cue validity. Thus, an agreement that a dead wife could sustain
the living does not require an agreement about what characteristics a dead wife
possessed nor about how exactly she achieved the goal of keeping her husband
alive. No one variation would have sufficient cue validity to become completely

34. King 1998: 420–28.

35. Silv. 5.1.258–60: Ibi supplice dextra / pro te Fata rogat, reges tibi tristis Averni / placat. . . .
36. See King 1998: 246–58, 336–38.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 291

dominant. Modern scholarship needs to acknowledge both the common ground

and the variations that exist within the belief cluster “di manes.”
One should stress, though, that the existence of multiple variations of belief
in the Roman community does not, in and of itself, invalidate or weaken any
particular belief for an individual worshipper. There is a long tradition in modern
scholarship of suggesting otherwise. In the early twentieth century, there was the
theory of “empty cult acts” associated with scholars like William Warde Fowler
and H. J. Rose, which treated variations in belief as proof of the absence of Roman
interest in any belief. Noting that various Roman sources give different names
for the god worshipped at the festival of the Lupercalia, Rose concluded that
no Roman either knew or cared what the ceremony was about and they were all
simply acting out of habit. Failure to agree on details is thus equated with the
absence of belief.37 A more recent variant of this idea can be seen in Paul Veyne’s
comment about the diversity of Roman views of the afterlife:
No generally accepted doctrine taught that there is anything after death
other than a cadaver. Lacking a common doctrine, Romans did not know
what to think; consequently they assumed nothing and believed nothing.38
Veyne here equates the validity of beliefs with their degree of uniformity, con-
cluding that Romans lacked beliefs about the afterlife because they did not agree
on the specifics. Veyne’s approach requires an assumption that belief can only
function in an orthodox framework, but no such assumption is necessary.
The Roman religion consisted of worshippers holding disunified polythetic
sets of beliefs. The overlap of these sets of beliefs might produce some beliefs
that were more common than others, but the lack of an orthodox mandate for
uniformity meant that the beliefs of an individual need not be affected by the
variant beliefs held by another Roman. A man who believed that the di manes had
powers to preserve life in their own right and a man who thought they preserved
life by posthumously invoking the help of other supernatural beings could both
believe, on a practical basis, that honoring the manes could help preserve their
lives. A Roman who thought the lares were another form of the deified dead
and one who thought they were the children of a nymph could both believe that
the lares were important guardians of the home who needed to be worshipped.
Worshippers could disagree about the nature of the god Mars or the god of the
Lupercalia while all agreeing that these gods existed and had powers that could

37. Rose 1933. One should stress that Rose does not mean simply that there might have been
individuals who participated without having beliefs about the god of the festival (as might be true of
some individuals even in a Christian ceremony) but that the festival continued for centuries without
anyone having a clear belief about what they were worshipping. Phillips 1986: 2697n.56, collects
citations to other “empty cult act” arguments of this sort. For a subtler view of the Lupercalia, see
Wiseman 1995.
38. Veyne 1997: 219. Veyne also insists (210–17) that only poor people in Rome believed that
any gods actually existed, while the wealthy “did not believe in them at all” (215). Thus, he is
basically asserting the “empty cult acts” position, at least for the upper class.

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benefit the lives of worshippers. Rather than searching for orthodox doctrines in
the Roman religion (or seeing their absence as a weakness) it is better to study
clusters of beliefs in the understanding that each individual variation could be
important to the belief holder’s understanding of how to obtain the benefits that
Rome’s pantheon of gods could offer that individual.39


This study has presented a model to describe Paganism as an aggregate of

overlapping sets of beliefs, and it has so far attempted to explain the existence
of such a religious structure only in terms of Paganism’s lack of an orthodox
linkage between the group identity and the correctness of beliefs. It might,
however, seem excessively Christianizing to define another religion solely by
its lack of Christian mechanisms. It is not enough to define a negative. What
positive mechanisms did the Roman religion possess that prevented or mitigated
conflicts between the holders of different beliefs, so that variations could coexist?
What was the central focus of the Roman religion’s leadership, if it was not the
assertion of dogmas? How did the issue of religious loyalty function within a
system of endless variation? I will here highlight three mechanisms that will help
to address these issues: the conceptual framework that I will call “polymorphism,”
the orthoprax emphasis of the priests, and pietas, the Roman concept of reciprocal
A significant factor in helping to prevent religious conflict within Rome’s
polythetic mixture of beliefs was the Romans’ tendency to view their gods as
polymorphous, that is, possessing more than one form or aspect. By “aspect,” I
mean the idea that a god, at the moment that it performs an act of power, possesses
a particular persona—a name, a set of attributes, and a propensity to influence
certain elements of human life. Deities in the Roman religion could manifest
themselves through more than one aspect. The god one prayed to in a particular
situation, and under a particular name, could be the same god that one prayed
to under a different name in a different context. This concept of polymorphism
provided a counter-balance to the fragmenting nature of polythetic diversity. If
gods could have multiple forms and even multiple aspects, then beliefs that were
distinct or even contradictory could be equated directly with each other, and any

39. This method of studying clusters of belief would also be applicable to the study of modern
polytheistic religions. For example, Tooker 1992 studied the religion of the Ahka people of Burma
and Thailand. She spoke to several Ahka who asserted that a particular ceremony would remove rats,
but they disagreed about which supernatural power caused the rats to depart. Like Veyne, Tooker
concluded that the lack of agreement showed a lack of belief, but it shows only a lack of orthodoxy.
All the Ahka in question believed that the ceremony produced supernatural power that removed
rats; they simply disagreed about the specifics. It seems more useful to invoke the model of a belief
cluster, in which a single underlying belief (that the ceremony removes rats) serves as the common
foundation for multiple specific variations of equal validity.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 293

resulting logical inconsistency could be dismissed as an attribute of polymorphic

divinity. Polymorphism provided a way to interpret variations in belief that did
not require selecting one single correct answer from among the variants.
An excellent illustration of polymorphism is a prayer that Catullus wrote to
the goddess Diana, in which he points out that she has helped the Romans in many
forms and under many names:
You are called Juno Lucina by those suffering the pains of childbirth.
You are called powerful Trivia and Luna with the counterfeit light. You,
goddess, measuring out the path of the year at a monthly pace, fill up
the home of the farmer with good produce. May you be hallowed by
whatever name pleases you, and, as you were accustomed to do in the
past, may you protect the people of Romulus with good aid!40

The poet equates Diana with the goddess of childbirth, Juno Lucina; with the
goddess of the crossroads, Trivia; and with the moon-goddess Luna, who measures
out the months for farmers. The names refer to the same being, but she can manifest
herself in different forms, each holding power over different areas of the human
experience. The phrase “by whatever name pleases you” allows for the possibility
that the goddess has other names. Catullus does not wish to offend the goddess
by assuming he knows which identity she prefers. Other surviving prayers show
similarly cautious wording.41 The chain of equations does not stop with Catullus.
Varro (LL 5.68–69) provides a similar list, equating Luna, Diana, and Juno Lucina,
but adding Proserpina. The inclusion of the queen of the underworld adds a whole
new layer of associations lacking from Catullus’ list. Why stop there? Augustine
(De Civ. D. 7.24) quotes another passage of Varro from a lost work, which equates
Proserpina with the hearth-goddess Vesta; with Ops, goddess of plenty; and with
Tellus, the goddess Mother Earth. Varro (LL 5.67) also equates Tellus with Juno,
wife of Jupiter.

40. Catullus 34.13–24, my trans. from the text of Eisenhut 1983:

tu Lucina dolentibus
Iuno dicta puerperis,
tu potens Trivia et notho es
dicta lumine Luna.
tu cursu, dea, menstruo
metiens iter annuum
rustica agricolae bonis
tecta frugibus exples.
sis quocumque tibi placet
sancta nomine, Romulique,
antique ut solita es, bona
sospites ope gentem!
41. For example, from the prayer for the devotio that Macrobius (Sat. 3.9.6–13) claims was
recited at the end of the Third Punic War: “or by whatever other name it is proper to call you”
(sive vos quo alio nomine fas est nominare). Cato (Agr. 139) gives the formula for sacrificing to
the deity in a grove “whether you are a god or a goddess” (si deus, si dea es).

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Varro quotes lines by Ennius equating Ops with both the earth and with
the agricultural goddess Ceres (LL 5.64). As Varro had also linked Ops to
Proserpina (see above), he thus equates Ceres with Proserpina. There are other
texts that do the same, presenting Ceres, not Proserpina, as the queen of the
underworld. Statius (Theb. 4.459–60) refers to the goddess of the underworld
as “Deep Ceres” (profunda Ceres), and Ceres is linked to the dead in sources
describing several rituals, including the opening of the mundus and the porca
praecidanea.42 Servius mentions a little known ceremony called the “Wedding of
Orcus,” which commemorates the marriage of Ceres (not Proserpina) to the ruler
of the underworld.43 As this list of equations began with Diana, it is fitting to end it
by noting that she too can be linked to the underworld. Statius (Ach. 1.344–48)
equates Diana with Hecate, whom Virgil (Aen. 6.117–18) makes a major power in
the underworld.
This list of divine equations illustrates several phenomena. The sheer number
of ways that different goddesses could be equated is an example of polythetic
variation, showing overlapping sets of variant beliefs. Not only does the list of
equated goddesses present several different ways to view the nature and attributes
of each individual goddess, such as Diana or Ceres, but it also shows varying
beliefs about which goddesses should be equated together and, by implication,
variations in the respective jurisdictions over which the goddesses held sway. The
list also illustrates the way that the idea of polymorphism can eliminate conflicts
between incompatible scenarios. Varro records a long series of equations of one
goddess with another. He attributes some of the variations to other writers, but he
does not pick a favorite scenario, and he does not give any indication that he sees a
reason not to equate both Ceres and Proserpina with the goddess Ops (and thus, to
equate Ceres with Proserpina). Varro’s approach depends on an assumption that
it is possible for goddesses to have multiple identities, and that those identities
can be equated directly with each other.
It is important to stress that the goddesses being identified with each other
do not simply have different names, but distinct personas and attributes.44 When
Varro links Diana and Proserpina, he is equating a virgin goddess with a goddess
married to the ruler of the underworld. The addition of Vesta (another virgin)
and Juno (another wife) only raises the level of complications. The equation
of Ceres and Proserpina also identifies mother with daughter. Such an equation
may not be a greater logical contradiction than the Christian Trinity’s equation
of father and son, but it is far more open-ended. The Christian Trinity is carefully
defined and limited by Christian theology, and Christians cannot expand the

42. King 1998: 350–57, 387–89.

43. Servius ad Georg. 1.344. Wagenvoort 1980: 137–40 notes the existence of Greek parallels,
i.e., the Greek god Hades marrying Demeter and not, as more frequently stated, Persephone.
44. For this reason, I prefer the term “polymorphism” (many forms) to “polyonymy” (many
names), a term used by MacMullen 1981: 90.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 295

Trinity by equating Jesus with Neptune. The Pagan system rested on the idea
that the number of aspects a deity possessed was unknown and possibly quite
large. Any deity could potentially be a manifestation of a number of other deities,
though different Romans would not necessarily agree about which deities were
aspects of one another.45
Divine polymorphism had various attractions and applications. Multiple
aspects allowed specificity in prayer, as one could pray to the aspect of the god
that seemed most relevant to one’s situation: Diana as goddess of childbirth, not
goddess of the moon. Roman religious practice could separate deities into separate
attributes and worship each in separate temples—Jupiter Propugnator, not Jupiter
Optimus Maximus or Jupiter Fulgur; Venus Genetrix, not Venus Verticordia or
Venus Victrix.46 This subdivision of deities could also explain why prayers failed
to bring results. One had prayed to the wrong aspect. Catullus’ formula “by
whatever name pleases you” tried to minimize the possibility of such error. The
same formula hints at another benefit. Polymorphism could reduce the amount
of ceremonial obligation that each worshipper owed the gods. If deities could be
equated with each other, then it was not necessary to worship them all separately.
In one prayer, Catullus prayed to Diana, mentioned that the goddess had three
other manifestations, and then included a broad formula that allowed her to have
any number of additional identities.
Polymorphism could also have the opposite effect, increasing the number of
gods by adding new aspects to existing paradigms. When the Romans encountered
the Greeks, they simply equated some of the Greek gods with their own and
adopted Greek myths as descriptions of the attributes of their own gods. Dissimilar
traditions could thus be grafted together, allowing religious innovation to be
presented as tradition.
That no Roman ever defined precisely which deities could be equated with
which other deities created an ambiguity that could itself be useful for those
who wished to introduce the worship of new gods or change the focus of existing
ceremonies. Feeney 1998: 28–31 has recently emphasized the degree to which the
emperor Augustus reworked the infrequently held Ludi Saeculares, changing them
from ceremonies in honor of the chthonic gods Dis and Proserpina to ceremonies
for Jupiter, Juno Regina, Terra Mater, Diana, and Apollo. Clearly, Augustus
changed the emphasis of the Ludi, but could a Roman participant have said with

45. Wiedemann 1990: 64–78 rejects the idea of multiple aspects in the Roman religion, citing
Palmer 1974: 3–56, who studied different regional cults in Italy devoted to Juno. Palmer pointed
out that while the goddess had the same name (Juno), she had distinct attributes at each site. Palmer is
right to point out that different aspects of a deity may have incompatible attributes, but the passages
from Catullus and Varro (cited in main text above) show that incompatible attributes were no barrier
to direct equation of one deity with another. It is also worth noting that some of the distinct attributes
that Palmer attributes to the various Junos are polymorphic equations with other goddesses, including
the Greek Hera, the Roman Venus, and even the Semitic goddess Astarte (Ishtar).
46. On the temples to Venus and Jupiter’s many incarnations, see Richardson 1992: 165–67,
218–28, 408–11.

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certainty that the goddesses worshipped in the Augustan ritual were different from
Proserpina when, earlier in the Republic, Varro had already made the cluster of
equations Proserpina = Tellus = Diana = Juno = Ceres? (See citations above.)
Polymorphism could allow a degree of continuity even in the case of substantial
At the same time, however, polymorphism could also allow compartmen-
talization of borrowed traditions whenever it was convenient. Christian church
fathers liked to point to mythological stories of sexual activity by gods like
Jupiter and Venus as proof of the unworthiness of Roman deities for worship
(e.g., Arnobius Adv. Nat. 3.27–28; 4.22). Many of the sexual behaviors in ques-
tion (incest, adultery, rape) would have been as unacceptable for humans in Pagan
society as they would have been for the Christians, but there is nothing to suggest
that the Pagans felt that the attribution of such stories to their gods affected their
worship. If there was a form of Jupiter who shared with the Greek Zeus certain
tales of lustful or incestuous conduct, there was also Jupiter Optimus Maximus,
whom one could worship as the protector of the Roman state (e.g., CIL 6.32323).
The god could have many forms, and his persona was a matter of context. A
modern equivalent can be found in Hinduism, where popular stories of Krishna
pursuing love affairs with shepherd girls have no detrimental effect on the worship
of Krishna as a major Hindu deity.47
Polymorphism served as a safety valve to defuse religious tensions within the
community and, indeed, to prevent conflicts from developing in the first place.
Within the Roman community’s polythetic variety of beliefs, any Roman would
have been aware of multiple religious interpretations of the nature of many gods,
but there was no need for the holders of different views to argue. If one Roman
understood the Lupercalia to be in honor of the god Inuus, and another believed
the deity was Faunus, and another equated the god with the Greek deity Pan,
there was no need to choose between the variations.48 They could all be right,
for the god could possess multiple identities. If Ovid (Fasti 2.597–616) thought
the lares were the children of a particular supernatural being, but Festus (108L)
thought they were the deified dead, the two scenarios were equally valid, for gods
could have multiple identities with incompatible attributes. Indeed, according
to Arnobius (Adv. Nat. 3.41), Varro alone asserted both that the lares had a

47. Dimock and Levertov 1967: xiv and 77–79. The Hindu idea of the avatar shares with Roman
thought the premise that gods can have many forms with distinct personas. It differs in having a
much more elaborate theological framework, for Hinduism is a much more dogmatic and scripturally
based form of polytheism than the Roman religion. Rome had no text equivalent in authority to the
Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna claims to be the same god as Vishnu, Indra, and Shiva. Hindu
theologians also sometimes assert that all gods are manifestations of a single deity. Cf. Sen 1961:
20–21, 37–38. Such all-encompassing pantheism can be found in the Roman world in the cult of Isis
(e.g., Apuleius Met. 11.5) and in certain late-Roman philosophical traditions that were influenced by
Plato (about which see Wilken 1984: 94–196), but it is not found in mainstream Paganism of the
early Empire.
48. Wiseman 1995 collects the citations.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 297

single mother and that they were the deified dead, and then added several other
possibilities, equating the lares with the curetes, with the Samothracian Digiti and
the Idaean dactyli. Logical contradictions that might arise in these equations were
manifestations of divine nature, and the gods did not have to function according to
human rules of consistency.
As a conceptual framework, divine polymorphism countered cultural trends
that might lead toward the formation of an orthodox religious system by providing
an alternative model. When two Romans disagreed about their understanding of a
deity, they could both worship according to their personal beliefs without the need
to assert that one was right and the other wrong, for they could understand the
differences in their views as a focus upon different aspects of the same divine
power. Christians of the Roman empire rightly recognized polymorphism to be
incompatible with their own (more monothetic) understanding of doctrine. There
are diatribes against polymorphic equations of Roman deities in the writings of
Augustine (De Civ. D. 7.7–13, 23–24), Minucius Felix (Oct. 22.5–23.1), and
Arnobius (Adv. Nat. 3.41–42).
Arnobius was an ex-Pagan convert to Christianity, and he was candid enough
to admit that the Pagans would not concede the need for doctrinal consistency on
which his own criticism was based (3.42). When he imagined the Pagan response,
he said that they would assert simply that the gods had a “form of their own
type” (formam sui generis). The gods had whatever form they wished to have
and however many forms they wished to manifest. What was important to the
Pagans was not to reconcile the contradictions, but to focus on the points that
all the various conflicting scenarios had in common, that the gods existed and
had power: “The consensus of authors proves they do exist” (3.42).


It would be going too far to assert that Roman attitude toward religion was that
“anything goes,” or that Rome lacked religious authorities. The Roman religion
possessed a variety of priests and a religious calendar marking the dates of various
festivals.49 There were also times in which religious conflicts developed and
times when the Romans invoked political and legal mechanisms to settle religious
disputes. Still, the authors of a recent study of such religious conflicts were
unable to find examples of disputes over the nature of the deities themselves,
or examples in which the Roman priests put forth a creed of beliefs that the
Romans were required to accept. Instead, there were disputes over the details
of ritual procedure, accusations that accepted procedure had not been followed,
jurisdictional battles over who would control ritual procedure, and hostility toward
alternative religious hierarchies that challenged the priests’ right to define ritual
for the whole community. The nature of these disputes reveals the priorities of

49. On the festivals and calendar, see Sabbatucci 1988 and Scullard 1981.

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Rome’s priests. They were focused on orthopraxy, the correctness of ritual, rather
than orthodoxy, the correctness of belief.50
Like polymorphism, orthopraxy was a mechanism that provided an alternative
to a focus upon asserting exclusive sets of beliefs as the organizing principle
of religious activity. Some scholars have viewed a focus upon ritual rather
simplistically as being an alternative to the belief in supernatural beings, but
such a view does not explain the frequency with which the powers of the gods
were invoked.51 James L. Watson’s research on the religion of Late Imperial
China offers a more sophisticated interpretation, which shows many parallels
with Roman practice. Watson presents a model of a system that “allowed for a
high degree of variations within an overarching structure of unity.” An extremely
varied and diverse collection of religious beliefs was present in the community.
Instead of attempting to reconcile the contradictions of those beliefs and assert an
orthodox theology, the state priests instead focused on encouraging conformity in
ritual practice. Thus, religion could still provide a degree of cultural unity through
common performance of the rituals by members of the community and regular
performance of uniform rituals by priests on behalf of the community, while a
wide range of beliefs about the specific nature of the gods being worshipped
could be left to the discretion of the individual participant. The same rituals
could be employed by those who held different beliefs within the context of
state-encouraged ritual conformity.52
As Evelyn S. Rawski rightly stressed, Watson’s model of orthopraxy does not
entirely remove the religion from the business of promoting beliefs. It merely
limits the assertion of beliefs to certain categories.53 Orthopraxy still depends on
the belief that the gods want specific ceremonies to be performed in a particular
way and that it is possible for humans to know exactly which rituals the gods want.
Moreover, any ceremony that is intended to accomplish a particular purpose will
promote general beliefs in the existence of the god being invoked and that god’s
ability to address the problem that motivated the prayer.
The difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is that the orthoprax priest
could leave large categories of beliefs to the discretionary interpretation of the
worshipper once the priest had affirmed the basic points that the god had power
and wanted a specific ritual offering. Thus, in Cato’s prayer to Mars (in section I
above), the prayer required that the worshipper share a belief in the deity’s ability
and willingness to help a farm, but it did not matter whether the worshipper also

50. Beard, North, and Price 1998: 99–108, 211–44. The college of pontiffs regulated the form of
private rituals, like funerals and rites for the deified dead, as well as state-sponsored ceremonies.
See Livy 1.20.5–7 and Cicero Leg. 2.48–57. For a general discussion of the pontiffs and other Roman
priests, see Beard and North 1990: 17–71, 177–255; and Szemler 1986.
51. Staal 1979. Cf. rebuttal by Penner 1985.
52. Watson 1988: 3–19, quotation from 16. Cf. Rives 1999: 152–54 on Rome in the era of
53. Rawski 1988: 20–26. More generally, cf. Penner 1985: 12–13.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 299

viewed Mars as a war-god, or also identified Mars with the Greek deity Ares, or
even connected Mars to the god of the Lupercalia and thus equated him with Pan,
Faunus, Inuus, and other “gods of sexual energy and desire.”54 Thus, orthopraxy
contributed to the existence of “graded” polythetic belief clusters by reinforcing
general beliefs about the gods and their powers while allowing a proliferation
of disparate interpretations about the specific natures of those gods. The priests
would not define the nature of Mars, and Romans with different beliefs could
perform the same ritual.
In practice, the Pagan focus upon orthopraxy produced a rather different
approach to the activity of attempting to please a deity than would be found in
an orthodox system like Christianity. Christians operate on the assumption that
their possession of a particular set of correct beliefs is desirable to the deity that
they worship and that the deity is judging them according to the degree that they
properly possess and endorse those beliefs. Thus, to please the deity to a greater
degree, or to respond to some perceived sign of divine displeasure, would involve
purifying one’s personal set of beliefs, strengthening one’s endorsement of central
dogmas while attempting to expunge other unorthodox, impure, or simply less
religious ideas from one’s mind. Even when religious behavior involves ritual,
it is presented as an expression of a set of beliefs. Thus, the favorite question
of American evangelists is “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and
Savior?” not “Do you participate in the Eucharist regularly?”
For the orthoprax Pagans, carefully performed rituals, not carefully purified
sets of beliefs, were what the deities desired. The gods wanted ceremonies
conducted in specific ways, and if the ceremonies were properly conducted
the gods were supposed to respond with the benefits sought by worshippers.
If the benefits did not appear, or there was some perceived indication of divine
displeasure, then the solution was to perform the ceremony again more carefully,
or to consult some authority like a pontiff to determine if some other ceremony
would be more pleasing to the deity in that particular context. When the benefit
appeared, or the perceived problem disappeared, then the gods had been ritually
satisfied and had reciprocated accordingly.55
A sacrifice to the gods did involve beliefs (section I above), but there was
no assumption that the gods would be more pleased with the sacrifice if the
worshipper’s beliefs more closely resembled some postulated ideal set of beliefs.
Ritual participants needed to agree with each other only that the gods existed,
had powers, and wanted offerings. Variations in beliefs about other aspects of the
gods’ nature could coexist as long as they were all compatible with the belief that
the gods would be pleased by the ceremony in question. Worshippers would not
even personally need to be experts on ritual procedure. For procedural details, they
could draw upon the authority of priests such as the pontiffs, who could consult

54. Wiseman 1995: 16; quotation from p. 8.

55. See Ogilvie 1969: 41–52 and Linderski 1993, citing examples from Livy.

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written records of earlier rituals and who could add to the accumulation of those
precedents by innovating if a specifically appropriate precedent was lacking.56
The ideas of polymorphism and orthopraxy were intertwined and interdepen-
dent. Polymorphism provided a device to link together disparate beliefs as directly
equivalent, and the orthoprax focus on common ritual action provided the glue
that held those linkages together without requiring all participants to share more
than the general belief that in situation Z god Y wanted ritual X to be performed
and would reward those who did so. Polymorphism was also an element of the
underlying rationale for orthopraxy. If the gods could have multiple identities
with incompatible attributes, and it was impossible to know how many identities
any given deity possessed, then the gods’ natures were unknowable and it made
sense to concentrate only on basic points: that the gods had powers and that they
wanted offerings. Other attributes could be left undefined, and there was no reason
to choose a single correct answer from the clusters of variations in circulation.
It is true that there were limits on the variation of beliefs in Rome, but even
when the Roman government took action against sects it found threatening, the
threat was still primarily one of bypassing the authority of Rome’s priests to
regulate ritual, not in a violation of beliefs. North’s analysis of the suppression
of the Bacchic cult in 186 BC has shown that the Roman authorities were not
motivated by objections to Bacchic beliefs but rather by a fear of the autonomous
organization and leadership of the Bacchic cult.57
Even the persecution of the Christians fits this pattern. Pliny the Younger
was perfectly willing to torture Christians, even though he admitted that he did
not know what Christians were, and that, after questioning them, he did not find
their religious ideas threatening (Ep. 10.96). What Pliny knew was that they were
an organization of mostly poor people who had their own leaders, met in the
middle of the night, and refused to perform standard sacrifices. They were outside
the control of Rome’s political or religious authority and were threatening for
that reason. The Pagans demanded that the Christians perform sacrifices, but as
G. E. M. de Ste. Croix pointed out, surviving texts about the persecutions often
do not specify which “gods” the Christians were being asked to worship. As the
Christians rejected all the gods but their own, it did not matter. They were outside
the religion, as the Romans conceived of religion.58 The Romans could accept
huge amounts of variation in beliefs within the framework of their rituals, but

56. On innovation, see North 1976, and cf. Beard and North 1990. The pontiffs had no specific
religious training prior to assuming the priesthood, but they had access to the accumulated written
records of prior rituals, and they were being called upon to comment on the proper form of those
rituals. It seems reasonable to assume that they would acquire a high level of expertise about ritual
procedure during a tenure that would last years. The amateur nature of Rome’s priesthoods should
not be exaggerated.
57. North 1979.
58. Ste. Croix 1974: 216–17. He also stresses that there was no specific law or legal mechanism
under which the Christians were persecuted. It was done under the prerogative of magistrates (and
emperors) as those rulers saw fit.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 301

they could not accept the wholesale substitution of a different set of rituals or
a different set of priests.
Still, even Christianity’s overt challenge to the orthoprax authority of the
Roman priests did not bring a consistent response from the Pagans, for there was
no regular procedure to deal with such problems, and enforcement was largely left
up to the discretion of individual emperors or even individual local officials. The
persecution of Christians was sporadic and localized and, even in the city of Rome
itself, hardly consistent in its application. Moreover, the Jews, who also had their
own religious hierarchy, were normally tolerated in ways that the Christians were
not.59 Phillips characterized the Roman leadership’s attitude toward improper
religious activity as being one of “I know it when I see it.” The government might
occasionally find a religious organization threatening to the control of the state
priests and take some sort of action, but there was never a systematic policy to
suppress all competing forms of religious hierarchy, and there was never any
attempt to define what the religion ought to be in detail or to establish any creed to
which everyone should adhere.60 Within the framework of accepting the priests’
right to define ritual procedure, enormous amounts of variation in belief could
coexist, and even that right to define ritual was not always asserted aggressively.


The polymorphic and orthoprax qualities of the Roman religion allowed a

multitude of beliefs about the nature of the gods to coexist while emphasizing the
need for ritual offerings. The gods (in whatever form) wanted offerings (in specific
forms), but there were also more Roman gods (and variant forms of Roman gods)
than any one Roman could have worshipped regularly. One might ask then what
the idea of being loyal to the gods would mean in such a framework. The Roman
model for the proper relationship between humans and gods was that of pietas,
a model that they also frequently employed in familial and political contexts.61
The very qualities that made pietas a useful model for a family were what made
it equally useful as a model for the Roman religion. It was demanding enough
in its obligations to reinforce ongoing ritual activity, while at the same time
flexible enough to accommodate a much greater range in the number and degree
of possible religious obligations than a monotheistic religion like Christianity
could accommodate.
The Roman concept of pietas had several components:
(A)   .

59. Compare Frend 1984 and Ste. Croix 1974, on the Christians, to Gruen 2002, on the Jews.
60. Phillips 1991. Cf. Phillips 1986: 2733–52.
61. For a full range of citations, see entries on pietas and its derivatives in the Thesaurus Linguae
Latinae or in any of several computerized databases like Pandora that allow for word searches.

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As Richard Saller has shown in his work on the Roman family, to be pius was
not simply to be obedient to some authority (like a father, for example), but rather
to be in fulfillment of one’s obligations toward another party in a relationship that
was understood to be reciprocal, so that the other party could and should offer
benefits in return as the relationship continued over time.62 In familial contexts,
pietas emphasized the mutual support that family members could provide each
other at different points in their lives. One story used to illustrate familial pietas
describes a daughter who breastfed her own imprisoned mother, just as the mother
once fed her as an infant (Pliny NH 7.121; Val. Max. 5.4.7). Pietas with the gods
was also reciprocal. The gods could give benefits to humans, but humans gave
offerings and reverence to the gods. Both sides of the reciprocity were assumed to
be important by participants in the ongoing worship.63
One should stress that being in a state of reciprocity is different from being
equal. Often pietas was a model for the interdependence of parties in unequal
relationships. Humans were not equal to gods; citizens were not equal to the
state; children were not equal to their parents, but their interests were interwoven.
Citizens needed the state, but the state also needed citizens. A paterfamilias held
the balance of power in his family unit, but he would nevertheless need the support
of his children and spouse in a wide variety of ways. Likewise in religion, Roman
worshippers assumed their gods to be far more powerful than themselves, but they
nevertheless believed that they could offer gods things that the gods wanted or
needed. Cato prays to Mars for aid for a farm (Agr. 141.2–3), but he also prays the
god “be increased” (macte) as a result of the offering. The power was unequal
but the relationship was reciprocal.
(B)        
    ,     
 -    .

In familial contexts, pietas was supposed to occur naturally as a result of

birth. As Saller has shown, legal texts in the Digest treat pietas as a naturally
occurring obligation for relatives to support each other’s interests, and the jurists
assumed pietas to be present even when the emancipation of children or some
other legal mechanism technically separated blood relatives in the eyes of the
law. Marriage or adoption might introduce a relationship after birth in which
pietas was expected, but pietas was still supposed to exist throughout the length
of that relationship as an intrinsic element of being in that relationship. This
idea of natural pietas binding the family together can be found in writing as
early as the first-century BC rhetorical treatise Ad Herennium (2.13.19). The
degree to which this ideal of pietas translated into practical mutual support by
family members doubtless varied in practice, but the existence of the ideal is

62. Saller 1988.

63. Note the heavy emphasis placed on reciprocity in the Roman religion by Linderski 1993.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 303

nevertheless important. Pious reciprocity was supposed to be ongoing as long as

the relationship continued to exist, and failure to uphold the obligations of pietas
would be a negatively defined action in Roman society.64 Pietas with the gods
could also involve perpetual reciprocal obligation, a reciprocity between deities
who were supposed to be immortal and generations of Roman worshippers. It
was certainly possible for new gods to be introduced and for rituals to change
over time, but for Roman worshippers at any given moment in history, a high
percentage of the gods being worshipped and ceremonies being performed would
have been inherited from an earlier generation.65 Thus, one could be born into
an ongoing reciprocal relationship with the gods, which it was one’s pious duty to
To violate ongoing pietas was to risk the wrath of the deity who had been
deprived of the worshipper’s contribution to the reciprocity. Plautus (Aul. 1–27)
has a lar familiaris explain its relationship with three generations of worshippers.
The grandfather and granddaughter worshipped faithfully and received rewards,
but the intervening father neglected the lar and suffered negative consequences
Plautus was describing a single family, but for the Roman community as
a whole the need to maintain proper pietas with the gods could be presented
as essential for survival. A military crisis, crop failure, or other problem could
be attributed to divine anger over human neglect of religious obligations (e.g.,
Livy 22.57; Cicero Marcell. 18 and Verr. 4.114; Ovid Fasti 2.547–56; Horace
Carm. 3.6; Valerius Maximus 1.1.16–21). The continuity of society and its
prosperity depended on the Roman people maintaining their end of the reciprocal
relationship, and doing so perpetually.
Roman authors placed great importance upon the continuity of worship. Va-
lerius Maximus (1.1.8) insisted that the reason the gods favored the Romans is
that they had never neglected the gods and had always given the performance
of rituals greater priority than other concerns (1.1.9–15). It was likewise rou-
tine for the Romans to claim that their rituals were created at the very begin-
ning of their history by figures such as King Numa (Livy, 1.19–20) or Aeneas
(Ovid Fasti 2.543–46). Even if the historical reality of such claims was not
always solid, their assertion was a way of insisting that the gods had never
been neglected, at least not since before the beginning of the Republic. Some-
times, archaeology can even support claims of long-term continuity. The Romans
worshipped Capitoline Jupiter at (approximately) the same location for over a
thousand years.66

64. Saller 1988, especially 399–403.

65. On continuity and change in general, see North 1976. For the introduction of new gods,
see Ogilvie 1969: 114–15 and, somewhat differently, Basanoff 1947.
66. On the pre-Republican first temple to Capitoline Jupiter, see Cornell 1995: 102, and for later
versions, Richardson 1992: 221–24.

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304   Volume 22 / No. 2 / October 2003

The idea that the safety of the Roman community depended upon continuity of
worship meant that a high valuation was placed on those who made an exceptional
effort to see that Rome’s obligations to its gods were not neglected. Valerius
Maximus collected examples of Romans who gave up privileges of rank (1.1.9),
risked personal injury (1.1.11), and put aside their grief for recently killed family
members (1.1.15) in order to make sure that ceremonies that they were responsible
for performing were performed properly. One pontifex refused to interrupt a
temple dedication that he was conducting even when it was suddenly announced
that his son had died (5.10.1). The historicity of the stories is less important than
the fact that Valerius is holding them up as examples of ideal conduct. The need
to please the gods, and to maintain continuity in a pattern of pleasing the gods,
was an important duty, for failure to do so could mean that the gods’ reciprocal
benefits and protections would not be forthcoming.
Still, the Romans’ concept of loyalty to their gods was rather different from
a Christian concept of religious loyalty, which is built around monotheistic
exclusiveness. From a strictly Christian point of view, Pagan religious loyalty
contained somewhat paradoxical elements. On the one hand, there was a great
emphasis on the need for perpetual continuity of worship. On the other hand,
there was a notable lack of continuity in some aspects of individual worship.
Romans had so many gods that no Roman could have worshipped them all,
much less worshipped them all regularly over a long period, and few, if any, of the
regularly occurring rituals involved the personal participation of the whole Roman
population. Likewise, one could note an issue raised by religious theorist Rodney
Stark when discussing polytheism in general. Stark argued that an abundance
of gods lowered the “exchange price” of any individual deity, that is, that the
existence of alternative gods made each individual god less essential to the
worshipper.67 Thus, in Rome, a farmer could pray to Ceres to help his farm,
or pray to Quirinus, or both, or neither, choosing instead to pray to Mars or
some other god. The need to maintain continuity of worship did not preclude
the ability to pick and choose which deity to worship from among the many in
Rome’s pantheon.
To assess these phenomena, it will be useful to discuss three further qualities
of the concept of pietas:
(C)        -
(D)       , 
     .

67. Stark 1999: 274–75. He does not develop this point in regard to Rome, but makes several
unusual statements about Greece, e.g. that “most Greek gods were notoriously undependable,” and
that “Zeus was . . . not very concerned about human affairs.” He does not cite any Greek sources,
nor does he explain how he is measuring religious dissatisfaction if long continuity of worship is
not evidence of the reverse.

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 305

(E)          

  ,         
,         
     .

Pietas was not exclusive. Just as a family member could be linked by pietas to
a wide range of relatives simultaneously, so a Roman could maintain multiple
pious relationships with multiple gods without that implying disloyalty. A farmer
who (for whatever reason) chose to give his offering to Ceres rather than to
Mars was not being disloyal to Mars, whom the same Roman might worship on
another occasion. Thus, pietas is rather different from Christian monotheistic
ideas of religious loyalty, wherein devotion to the one deity precludes worship
of any other.
Pietas could also be collective, linking individuals to groups. Children (as
a group) might have collective obligations to parents, and citizens (collectively)
owed pietas to the state. Likewise, pietas with the gods could link an individual
worshipper with multiple gods, but also link a group of Romans to any individual
god, or even the entire Roman community (as a unit) to an individual god. Cato
could sacrifice to Mars on behalf of his whole household, although only one person
actually performed the ceremony (Agr. 141). On a broader scale, numerous Roman
sources portray individual Roman leaders or priests sacrificing to one or more
gods, while invoking the protection of those gods for the Roman community as
a whole (Val. Max. 4.1.10; Livy 41.16.1; CIL 6.32323), or to assist some activity
that would be of broad interest to the community, like agriculture (Ovid Fasti
4.905–32) or war (Livy 1. 32.6–10). Prayers on behalf of the whole community
did not have to come from priests. Velleius Paterculus (2.131) offers one to end
his history, and Horace (Carm. 1.21) urges unidentified “boys” to worship Apollo
and Diana on behalf of the populus.
These examples show that the Romans could conceive of the Roman com-
munity (as a whole) as being one side of a reciprocal relationship with any god.
Equally importantly, they show that the rituals that made up the Roman side of
that reciprocity did not need to be conducted by each individual member of the
community and might be conducted only by a small number of individuals. Thus,
there was no contradiction between the ideal of maintaining eternal continuity
of worship and the reality that individual Romans did not worship all of their
gods. As long as someone in the community was maintaining the worship, then
the collective pietas of the Romans with all of those gods was being upheld. Only
a sign of divine displeasure would suggest that the Romans were failing in their
commitments. If there was a disaster, like the defeat at Cannae, then the Romans
might investigate the possibility of neglect and bolster their worship in some way
(Livy 22.57). If life was running smoothly, then the gods were satisfied, and the
Romans assumed that they were maintaining an appropriate level of pietas with
all their divine protectors.

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It is also intrinsic to the concept of pietas that one’s piety did not have to
have equal force in all cases, for it could apply to different types of relationships,
and one could rank them in a hierarchy of importance. When Valerius Maximus
collected illustrations of pietas, he regarded the obligations that citizens owed the
state as more important than those between relatives (5.6, praef .), and seemed
to rank pietas between brothers as more important than that between husband
and wife (5.5, praef .). One could even be “pious through impiety” (inpietate pia,
Ovid Met. 8.477), that is, advance one set of obligations at the expense of other
obligations that one regarded as less central.
In day-to-day worship, one could also have a stronger bond of pietas with
some gods than others, just as one could have stronger familial ties with a father
than a cousin. The collective mass of Roman religious activity would uphold the
overall pietas of the community with its gods, but individual worshippers were
under no obligation to worship any particular god, and could therefore concentrate
on worshipping those deities that seemed most central to their personal situation.
If Romans had limited budgets for sacrificial animals, or limited time to spend
conducting rituals, they would have concentrated their resources on the worship
of those gods whose powers they believed to be most relevant to their lives.
Both the focus of worship and the amount of personal effort that pietas de-
manded could vary quite a bit, depending on the worshipper’s circumstances. For
many Romans, the most intensive relationship with the gods would have been
with the household gods, like the lares and manes, for the very reasons suggested
by Plautus’ story of the angry lar familiaris (Aul. 1–27). Only members of a
particular household would worship that household’s lares. So the practical re-
sponsibilities of maintaining the reciprocity of pietas fell heavily on the members
of the household, who had to make regular offerings because no one else was
going to do so. The household gods were also in many ways the gods of first
resort, because their specific zone of supernatural influence was the welfare and
household of their family of worshippers. Romans prayed to lares for their health
(Val. Max. 2.4.5; Juvenal 12.99–114) and their safety even in situations away
from the family home (Tibullus 1.10.15–32). Lares could ensure that a wedding
went smoothly (Plautus Aul. 385–87) or look after a farm or the family’s livestock
(Cato Agr. 2.1; Tibullus 1.1.19–24). Manumitted slaves would thank the lares for
their freedom (Horace Sat. 1.5.66). Likewise, the manes could sustain the lives of
their worshippers (section II above). Thus, the household gods were essential to
the welfare of the family, and their worship was the specific obligation of that
particular household.
A given Roman’s worship of gods outside the household would largely be a
matter of perceived need and thus be dependent on the worshipper’s particular
problems, interests, occupation, or location, combined with his or her particular
set of beliefs about the powers of specific deities. A Roman who wished to invoke
the power of Rome’s major temple deities could do so, making an offering or a vow
of an offering, accompanied by a prayer for a specific benefit. Such worship need

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 307

not occur on any regular basis, and might be infrequent or even a response to a one-
time crisis.68 There was also worship associated with occupations, which might be
a daily burning of incense before work, or something less frequent, like an annual
sacrifice at the harvest. Other gods (often lacking temples) were associated with
specific occasions like weddings. A Roman might make an offering to a god like
Hymenaeus (Cat. 61) only quite rarely in a lifetime, if at all.
Even within the context of the same situation, different Romans might make
different decisions about worship, for the clusters of beliefs about the natures
of Rome’s gods meant that there might be substantial variation in their beliefs
about the powers of a given god to address a given problem. If one Roman
believed that Mars was the most powerful god to help his farm, and another
farmer associated Mars primarily with war and preferred to make offerings to
Ceres instead, both options were equally possible, and the exercise of either
option would still contribute to the overall pietas of the community toward the
god in question.
Thus, individual and collective pietas combined to form a complex model
of practical worship. At the level of the community, the Romans believed that
their overall success was due to their collective pietas with all their gods. By
maintaining the continuity of their worship, they had assured the continuance of
the gods’ reciprocal benefits. At the individual level, pietas obligated Romans to
make offerings to the gods, but it did not require them to worship every god, nor to
show the same frequency of ritual offerings to each god that they did worship.
Instead, individual Romans engaged in a variety of ritual activity, concentrating
their worship most intensively on those deities whose sphere of power was most
relevant to their situations and whose power could best provide the benefits they
specifically desired.
Individual desires for divine benefits led to individual acts of worship through
which worshippers sought to obtain those benefits through reciprocal interaction
with the gods. The cumulative effect of all of those individual expressions
of pietas, though, was to maintain the collective pietas between the Roman
community and each deity and to assure the collective continuity of that deity’s
worship. Even in the case of the wedding gods, whom an individual might
worship with great infrequency during a lifetime, overall continuity of worship
was assured. Weddings took place regularly, so the gods of weddings would in fact
have received regular worship from the Roman people, just not the same individual
Romans. Thus, as Valerius Maximus (1.1.8) insisted, the Romans did not neglect
any of their gods, even if, individually, they were neither worshipping all of them
nor all worshipping the same gods. Pietas was thus a conceptual mechanism by
which a very disunified mass of ritual behavior could be presented as being to
the overall benefit of the community as a whole, with each act contributing to
the collective reciprocity between the Roman people and their many gods.

68. See, in general, Ogilvie 1969: 24–52.

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To attempt to tie together some of the strands of the above argument, I

will conclude here by offering a comparison between the religious strategies of
two hypothetical individuals, both of whom are the fathers of children who are
seriously ill. One is a Christian, who prays to his deity to heal his children, and the
other is a Roman Pagan, who is making a similar prayer for healing to the god
Aesculapius. How would the experience of making these prayers be different for
the two men?
At the basic level of offering the prayer itself there would be conceptual
similarities. Both fathers would believe that the god to whom they were praying
existed, had the power to heal the children, and was capable of hearing and
responding to prayer. That these points would be as true of the Pagan as of
the Christian is worth stressing. Pietas and orthopraxy are not alternatives to
holding beliefs. The reciprocity of pietas would be meaningless without an
underlying belief that the gods exist and can reciprocate, and the major premise or
orthopraxy—that gods want certain rituals to be performed—likewise assumes
the ability of the god to reciprocate favorably if pleased. Both fathers would start
from the belief that their respective gods could help them.
The practical application of that belief would, however, involve greater
differences. The Pagan would approach his prayer with an emphasis on giving
or promising offerings. He would want to extend an ongoing pattern of giving
offerings to the god, or, if he had not previously worshipped that particular god, he
would want to initiate the giving of offerings, so that he could establish a basis
for the god to reciprocate. The offering might well be in the form of an animal
sacrifice. If the Pagan consulted a Roman priest about his best course of action, the
priest would place emphasis on the need to observe precise ritual forms, insisting
that any failure to perform the sacrifice correctly would result in the god rejecting
it. If the Pagan did not receive the desired benefit, he would likely respond by
repeating the offering and attempting to perfect his ritual form on the assumption
that he had made a mistake.
The Pagan might have already made similar prayers for healing to other gods
like the lares prior to making his appeal to Aesculapius, and he might continue to
appeal to other gods in addition. These other prayers had no bearing on his prayer
to Aesculapius. He could pray to as many gods as he wanted. He also might believe
that Aesculapius had other polymorphic forms, and his prayer might thus allow
for the possibility that the god would prefer to be addressed by a different name.
The Christian had only one god, and thus would concentrate on appealing
to the mercy and generosity of a being that he defined as all-powerful. Although it
is possible that a Christian prayer for healing could be accompanied by rituals
of some sort, ritual would not usually be the main focus. Christianity has its own
element of reciprocity, but it is based on the exchange of divine benefits for an

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: The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs 309

exclusive monotheistic loyalty of a sort the Pagan would not offer and for an
intensive concentration on orthodox beliefs.
If the Christian consulted a priest about how he could become more pleasing to
his god, the priest would not coach him on ceremonial technique, but would rather
urge him to purify his own personal set of beliefs by expunging any beliefs that
would not, in the church’s view, be pleasing to that god. Likewise, the Christian
should attempt to become more religious, not in the sense of performing more
rituals, but of discarding preoccupations with any secular activities that distracted
him from Christianity’s core beliefs, so that he would become more worthy of
divine intervention.
If one multiplied the number of Christians and Pagans in the sample, the
differences would increase. Christian beliefs may not be entirely uniform, but, at
least within a given denomination, they have a common reference point in standard
theology. By contrast, the Roman Pagans focused instead on standardized rituals
in an overall pattern of reciprocity. Aside from the belief that Aesculapius could
heal the sick and that he wanted particular ceremonies, it would not matter what a
given Roman believed Aesculapius was like. A vast number of variant beliefs
could and probably would have existed simultaneously in overlapping polythetic
clusters. The more gods (and aspects of gods) the Pagan worshippers invoked, the
larger the total range of variant beliefs would have become. Christian orthodoxy
simply could not accommodate that degree of variation within its more monothetic
framework. The Christian emphasis would have been on reducing variation in their
community, by intensifying their focus on core orthodox dogmas.
Thus, it is the disparate patterns of organizing beliefs, rather than the presence
or absence of beliefs, that define the difference between Paganism and Christianity,
and that difference in organization would have translated into a practical difference
in the participants’ approach to worship, even in a similar situation like a prayer
offered for a sick child.

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